For some seasoned K-pop veterans, it can take time to find a signature, solo sound — and for Shinee’s leader and main vocalist Onew, that self-discovery couldn’t have come at a better time.
Known as both the vocal powerhouse of Shinee and as one per his own solo career, Onew’s small but stately discography still seemed to be missing something that his fellow Shinee members had already established: an infallible, unmistakable identity that stood out amongst the crowd and differentiated himself from his own members as a single, separate entity.
Voice plus his catalog of drama OSTs had already done that in some right, establishing Onew as an emotive balladist with a unique and striking vocal tone. But since fellow Shinee member Taemin’s rise to solo icon and especially since Key’s release of Bad Love last year, which validated him as a dignified, theatrical soloist in his own right, it was about time Onew differentiated himself as his members had before him and settle into his own distinct sound.
Luckily, with Onew’s second mini album Dice, he does just that. No, his theatrics aren’t as grand as Taemin’s or Key’s, but that’s not him. With Voice, while heartfelt and stirring, his style and identity were really just that — his voice. But on Dice, Onew takes his recognizable, tinny tone and mighty vocal chops and applies them to a well-suited, retro-pop sound that allows him to break out of the mold he once carved for himself.
While retro-pop is at the album’s core, Dice is more diverse in the span of its six songs than it initially lets on. That’s not to say that it isn’t cohesive, however. While some tracks are slower and more lowkey (“Yeowoobi,” “In the whale”) than others (“Dice,” “Sunshine”), all come together to form an overall bright, hopeful sound that matches the feeling Onew’s voice generates just on its own.
“Dice” is a perfectly fitting start to building that sense of lightness and optimism that the remainder of the album signifies when taken all together. Backed by subtle synths and an upbeat, continuous bassline, “Dice” allows Onew’s voice to take flight, shifting between high, full vocals and lofty falsettos throughout the chorus. Paired with the track’s lyrics, which compare love to a “rolling dice,” “Dice” sets the tone for the remainder of the album’s breezy and airy vibe.
“Sunshine,” the next track on the album, picks up right where “Dice” left off, painting an even more vivid picture of Dice’s lightheartedness and easiness. That’s especially depicted in the track’s lyrics, as Onew sings of a dreamy getaway in the post-chorus:
White piña coladas
Sunsets at Bahamas
A daunting Nirvana all night
Your halted passport
Whеrever we go, togеther
Wake up from a lingering sleep
I wanna, I wanna
Things slow down, but still flow seamlessly, from “Sunshine” to “On the way,” which signifies a change in pace that sticks for much of the rest of Dice. Slower tempo and more subdued instrumentals aside, “On the way” still retains the exact same relaxed, buoyant feel that the first two tracks established as Onew reminisces about a former lover. The theme of alternating between delicate falsettos and a deeper, tinnier vocal tone continues throughout this track, upping the album’s cohesiveness.
As Dice progresses, the instrumentals only become emptier and more stripped down, but this works well in Onew’s favor. In “Love Phobia,” his vocal harmonies become an additional instrument in and of themselves, as much of the track is otherwise empty aside from an R&B-inspired beat which blends almost seamlessly into subtle backing synths. On “Yeowoobi,” his vocals shine once again, only this time against a backdrop of barely anything other than an atmospheric guitar. Onew repeats the line “Your love takes me higher than I’ve never been,” heightening the optimism and brightness of the track and the album as a whole until it reaches the bridge and a key change, at which point his voice soars — so as to literally take us, the listener, “higher than [we’ve] never been.”
That elation, and Onew’s voice, come back down to Earth in the final track, “In the whale.” A soft retro number with bright synths and a subdued but booming 80s-inspired drum beat, “In the whale” is the perfect backdrop for Onew to showcase his vocal nuances and prowess one last time. While his voice is at its most delicate and muted on this track, the quietness of the backing instrumentals again makes his adlibs and vocal subtleties that much louder and more pronounced, giving it his newfound signature touch.
Onew is no Key nor Taemin, but he doesn’t have to be. With Dice, the Shinee leader has finally come out of his shell and found a retro-inspired but still timeless pop sound that suits him to a tee, propelling him to solo stardom in his own right. As one of the most unique and identifiable voices in K-pop, Onew’s Dice is a homecoming of sorts. Finally, his distinct vocals, once really only known only as such, have found a fitting, happy home of their own.